I think what I always get wrong about Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is that all his unconventional moves and self-assured public declarations are not meant to tell us how to win.
They are meant to tell us how he wins.
In a conversation with ESPN’s Zach Lowe from the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference over the weekend, Morey conceded that trading Clint Capela and a first-round pick for Robert Covington was a massive gamble, one necessary to give his good Rockets team its only chance to be great.
Morey landed James Harden in a 2012 swindle, and ever since he has cycled through various stars and supporting casts in an effort to maximize his championship chances. Harden’s game makes for a fairly simple recipe: Maximize a generational offensive talent’s skill set and minimize the resulting defensive limitations, all in hopes of getting the math to work in Houston’s favor when it matters.
“Our job is obviously to get great superstars, probably at least two to win the title and maybe more, but we have two, and then find the right fits around them,” said Morey. “With James and Russell [Westbrook], probably a little more with Russell, what we’ve learned is having shooting and spacing and driving lanes, if you’re going to win with those two guys, I think that’s the best way to play.”
It is fair to be skeptical about why Morey traded for Westbrook this past summer. Amid reports of an “unsalvageable” relationship with Harden, Paul was dealt for a player whose MVP worthiness Morey had long questioned. Morey told Lowe that peak Westbrook elevated the Rockets’ ceiling higher than Paul, who had the Rockets positioned to win a ring before a hamstring injury cost them their best shot against the 2018 Golden State Warriors. That group reached its sub-championship pinnacle, Morey said, and Westbrook increased their title odds to roughly 5 percent. Whether for chemistry or mathematical reasons, Morey felt compelled to push all his chips in on Harden and Westbrook.
Either way, it was a massive gamble.
What Morey quickly learned was that all the reservations he had about Westbrook turned out to be right — the inefficient shooting, in particular — and made trading Capela a priority. Houston could not afford to field two non-shooters, Westbrook and Capela, if the Rockets wanted to build an offense that could outperform a defense featuring a pair of former MVPs not known for their work on that end.
The defense was roughly the same whether or not Capela was on the floor with Harden and Westbrook, but the offense transforms from among the league’s worst (105.9 points per 100 possessions) to historically great (117.7 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass) once Capela is removed from that equation. The resulting net rating is the difference between a .500 team and a contender. It’s all math with Morey, and this was how to make it work with Westbrook.
To maximize what makes Harden and Westbrook great — their ability to operate in space, especially — the Rockets needed three shooters around them, natural defensive concerns aside. What good is it to have two superstars if you are actively impeding their greatest abilities?
It’s still a massive gamble.
In their first nine games after trading Capela, the Rockets scored 115.6 points per 100 possessions, good enough to win seven games despite a defensive rating that slipped a few points per 100. Westbrook was playing out of his mind, averaging 35 points, shooting 70 percent on 13 shots at the rim per game, and Houston was shooting a respectable 36.8 percent on a league-high 47.4 3-point attempts a night. The math was working in their favor, but it was unsustainable. Averages have a way of leveling out, especially when a team relies so heavily on a variable like 3-pointers.
In the four games since, Westbrook is getting to the rim just as much, only shooting 52.6 percent once he gets there, and the Rockets are shooting worse than 30 percent on their 40-plus 3-point attempts per game. The result has been four straight losses — three to sub-.500 teams. The averages will find a middle ground. Opponents will sort out how to better exploit a defense without a center, but Houston’s offense will be better sans Capela in the long run. Math will find a way.
The question will be whether any of this matters in a seven-game series. What happens when you are not living in the averages but riding the highs and lows of that variance? Defense can be a constant, but there is a pretty high probability that the offensive lows will outweigh the highs at least once over four rounds of the playoffs. Houston’s ceiling may be greater with Westbrook, but can he sustain that ceiling for longer than a round or two? His playoff history would suggest he cannot.
This is a massive gamble. It seems like Paul was a better bet from night to night when healthy, but once Morey made the trade for Westbrook, this is how he wins. His job is to play the odds as best he can, and they are a little better without Capela in the middle. This is not necessarily how you win.
“Toronto-Philly comes down to a Kawhi [Leonard] miss — that’s a miss, that thing hit the side of the hoop, that’s like a 10 percent shot,” Morey told Lowe of last year’s Game 7 miracle, “but it goes in. They obviously put themselves in position to win, so they win, but every narrative shifts based on the 10 percent shot. So, if you’re in a close game or a close series that comes down to the last shot, really both teams won, both teams lost. You shouldn’t draw massive narratives based on whoever won or lost that. I know that’s how people do it, but the reality is it’s all sort of nonsense.”
To everyone watching at home, Leonard did not miss, both teams did not win, and we can draw a massive narrative from one of the most unbelievable shots in NBA history. It is not nonsense. It is what makes the game great: A championship can be won or lost on that 10 percent chance. It is all just a gamble. Morey cannot plan for the variables. He can only increase his odds. The math is his reality, and it is telling him that Leonard had twice as good a chance to make that shot as the Rockets do of winning it all. That is the best he could get. It is not necessarily the best you can get.
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